October 21, 2004


Swarthmore is in pretty good shape financially, though like many of even the wealthiest private colleges and universities, the last five years have required a surprising amount of belt-tightening in small but important ways. We’ve moved from an era where the outer bounds of planning were expansive to an era where any new initiative has to survive some really serious fiscal testing to even make it to the stage where it can be discussed. It’s hard for outsiders to grasp, but this college, like all of its peers, is sustainable at its present rate of expense only if the endowment makes its expected returns, tuition remains about where it is and if alumni give at a fairly predictable rate to both the annual fund and to major capital campaigns. This is not to say that it couldn’t survive if those things changed, but it would have to undergo some fairly serious structural alterations if those sources of operating monies were reduced significantly, among them a significant change in the faculty-student ratio.

I get fairly annoyed when either students or even sometimes colleagues call for some major new program without telling me what they intend to take away in return, or if not, where they intend to get new monies. I don’t care what the program or idea is—I may agree it’s a great idea or initiative—without some responsible and bold attention to the institution’s resources and their current distribution, it’s a non-starter. A few years back, some students wanted an ethnic studies program. Ok, might be an idea worth talking about. What program are we going to get rid of? We could take existing programs that seem to overlap that project and collapse them into one, or eliminate one outright in favor of the new idea. The students weren’t willing to talk about that: they just wanted more: more faculty, more resources, more courses. Where’s it going to come from? Oh, the college is rich, it’ll find a way, there’s money somewhere. Sure there is: it’s just that it’s already being spent. Tell me whose ox is going to get gored: I might even be willing to join in the goring. Just don't sit around waiting for Tinkerbell to sprinkle the proposal with magic fairy dust.

Right now, we’re in our third (fourth?) year of talking very seriously about various proposals for a living wage. The most ardent supporters of the idea on the faculty and among the students have consistently pushed for both a substantial increase in the minimum wage level that the college pays and for changes in our health care, child care and other benefit policies.

The basic thrust behind the campaign strikes me as sound. I’d like to be a part of an institution that takes on an obligation to treat all its employees more fairly and supportively than the general standards of the labor market in its area do.

I’ve been consistently wary about the actual campaign here for a number of reasons. I’ve been mildly annoyed by a few of the most fanatical student supporters, who persist in wildly-over-the-top ad hominem attacks on anybody expressing any doubt about the idea. That can be ignored as noise, though. There’s some interesting intellectual and substantive criticisms that some faculty and administrators have made about the actual effects of having minimum wages that are far above the local market minimums, which may not be the effects which the campaign is striving for. Another important issue concerns wage compression and its effects on staff who were previously well above the college minimum because of their skills but who will now be close to it. The living wage advocates have been a bit cavalier about a lot of these objections, but they’ve made some responses, some of them substantive, and have learned to take wage compression seriously. We’ve moved towards something that strikes me as both a better idea and a more affordable one, namely, means-tested subsidies in our health care benefits. I’d still like to see a child care subsidy for the lowest paid staff as well, but that’s not presently supported by our administration.

What has frustrated me the most, however, is that the main proponents of the initiative have consistently refused to talk about where to get the money, and for much of the lifespan of the living wage campaign, even refused to talk about how much their proposals would cost. That, they have said, is the job of the administration. Their position—even today, after much discussion—is that we should first declare that the proposal, including a specified minimum wage figure of $10.72/hr, is a transcendant moral obligation—and then, only then, decide how to fund it.

There is nothing that this institution or any institution does which is so morally or even practically necessary that we don’t need to talk concretely about what it costs. Cost-benefit analysis is a basic part of ethics, not a technical appendix to it.

For example:

•Do we have to pay our faculty and top administrators as much as we do? Probably not in order to recruit faculty, given the facts of the academic job market. You could probably pay half what we do and never go wanting for strong candidates in most subject areas, particularly the humanities. Probably if we want to retain some of the faculty we most want to retain we do need attractive salaries —though we could easily replace them with junior candidates, there are nevertheless costs associated with the constant loss of middle-level and senior faculty due to under-market pay. Even the ones you keep might be disgruntled, and given that this college, like most, depends on a certain number of its faculty doing more than they have to or need to, that might be a problem. Though balancing that, it's not entirely clear to me that students stop coming to a university if the faculty don't teach with enthusiasm or commitment. Just look at some of the most prestigious research universities. But is it a moral obligation to pay the faculty what they’re paid? Nope. Might that have to bow to some other obligation, ethical or practical? Sure.

•Do we have to give tenure? It’s a pretty damn expensive thing to do—it locks you into a thirty-year obligation to a particular field of specialization and a particular employee. Is it a moral obligation to stick with it? The way I see it, probably not: in fact, I think there are complicated collateral ethical problems with tenure as a system that go beyond its costs. But at the same time, it helps you retain a lot of the faculty you want, and it ideally and often practically does protect some of the most creative faculty when they innovate. The political costs of abandoning it would be enormous, as well, and might cost you many of the current faculty you want to retain.

•Do we have to have need-blind financial aid? It’s very expensive. We could probably fill the entire college with paying customers and do a lot of things with that revenue. But then we might not get the students we want, who seek socioeconomic and cultural diversity among their peers, and all the other benefits that we accrue by having a diverse student body. We’d be missing out on vital moral and social obligations we have (at least the way I see it). I’d say the need trumps the cost—but not in such a way that we don’t even have to have the conversation.

There are also things which would might arguably be morally positive or socially that we just don’t do. We could make tuition free for every student we admit. We could give every admitted student an iPod. We could make a pledge to guarantee the post-graduate employment of our students who are first-generation college students. We could charge students an extra $1,000 a year and give the money to the nearby public school system in Chester as an outright grant. We could require the faculty of the college to teach in-service training for K-12 teachers in the Philadelphia area, or classes in nearby prisons, or to do some other relevant community service. We could specify a minimum level of accomplishment for potential students and randomly admit each class from that general group of prospectives rather than agonize over each particular decision. We could create more positions in subject areas that directly engage social justice in some fashion. We could invest directly in businesses located in nearby impoverished communities, even ones that might lose money. We could require the college to use only minority-owned contractors. We could close the college and sell its buildings and give away its endowment on the logic that nothing we do in order to monkey-wrench our small fraction of tomorrow's ruling class and that there are people other than ourselves who need the money more anyway. We could get rid of the humanities because they're hopelessly impractical, useless or theoretically incoherent. We could dump the history department because history just opens old wounds to no good end. We could get rid of the sciences because they reproduce the military-industrial complex. We could refuse to buy any journals which were not open-access publications just on principle. Some of those things might save us money; most would cost us a lot. We presently don’t do them because we recognize that every single one of them comes up against both practical and ethical objections, with competing priorities, and because most of them cost more than the ethical benefit they would deliver--or perhaps some of them draw upon a highly questionable, debatable, and in some cases flat-out stupid conception of ethics, politics or institutional philosophy.

Nothing is so important in either moral or practical terms that it gets a free ride. But that’s what the living wage proponents have argued: let the staff figure out how to pay for it. That’s not work you pass on to someone else, as if they’re just filling out your tax forms for you. It’s political work, it’s community work, it’s the heart of the matter. What are you going to stop doing that you presently do in order to do this new and worthy thing? Or if you’re not going to stop doing something, where are you going to get the new funds? Are you going to charge more in tuition?—a decision that also has social justice implications. Are you going to draw more heavily out of the endowment? That’s pretty risky, and impinges on other uses of the endowment. Are you going to beg for alumni to give even more than they already do, to the tune of a fairly significant sum required for the proposal? You can try, if you like: I wouldn’t give much for your chances.

It’s not just that the initiative has been pushed without attention to its costs. It’s also that it has never been stacked up against all the other comparably expensive things that we might do, and judged in relation to them. Does it compete favorably with adding new faculty positions in areas that we don’t address? Yes, I think it’s much better than adding new positions, but it’s not as if we’ve ever talked about it that way. Does it compete favorably with trying to slow the rate of tuition increases in the future? With extending favorable benefits to adjunct faculty or athletics faculty (another issue we’ve talked about more of late)? With improving our general benefits package for all employees, regardless of rank? With ordering books and journals for the library? With improving the information technology infrastructure of the campus? With new buildings or improvement of facilities? With new staff positions? And so on. It’s not as expensive a proposal as some of those, and it’s much more expensive than some others, but anything you choose to do affects other obligations you presently have and some you might take on in the future, and many of those obligations have an ethical component as well as a practical one. It seems to me that every discussion of a new initiative ought to be incubated always with an awareness of the entire universe of potential new initiatives that compare to it.

If you can’t tell me where you want to make sacrifices—or you only have feeble, painless, and inadequate suggestions designed to deflect the political burden of making hard choices—then your proposals aren’t something I can take terribly seriously. These are dilemmas we face at the small scale of institutional life as well as the grand stage of national politics. At the national level, I shortly have to decide between somebody who appears to be modestly irresponsible in his proposals (Kerry) and somebody who has an established track record of catastrophic irresponsibility (Bush). That’s a pretty easy choice. It ought to be easier still in our everyday sociopolitical worlds, but it rarely is: ducking the hard questions is a common political art.